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"Wake Up, America, Peekskill Did!"

Remembering a bloody Labor Day when America's sense of justice was nearly stoned to death

Comments (5)
Thursday, September 03, 2009
WIDE WORLD
Peekskill rioters pose proudly in front of their handiwork

On September 4, 1949, 60 years ago this Labor Day weekend, as they were leaving an outdoor holiday concert, the folk singers who wrote "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" and "This Land is Your Land" were part of a crowd ambushed by an angry mob.

The attack was premeditated and organized. The concertgoers and musicians leaving the performance area were diverted down a four-mile-long country lane lined on either side by steep embankments. Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie were riding in a Jeep, along with Seeger's wife and his young family. As the cars began to leave in single file, the mob uncovered piles of baseball-sized stones they'd collected at the top of the hillsides and began hurling them down at the cars. Other rioters used clubs and their bare fists. With all other exits blocked, the cars had no where else to go. The local police on hand laughed when asked to help and told the victims to move along. The next morning a burning cross was found on the fairgrounds where the folk singers had performed.

Though these events foreshadowed America's civil rights movement, they didn't happen south of the Mason-Dixon line. While many of the rioters screamed anti-communist slogans and many historians agree the battle helped pave the way for Senator McCarthy's political witch hunts, it wasn't a particularly conservative region where blood was spilled.

The attacks happened in Peekskill, N.Y., a small industrial city on the Hudson River, just north of Manhattan and a couple hours from the Pioneer Valley.

*

A week prior to the Labor Day concert and riots, Seeger's newly formed organization, People's Artists, had booked another concert at the Lakeland Picnic Grounds. This show was stopped by violent unrest before it ever got started.

It was going to be a benefit for performer Paul Robeson's Civil Rights Congress. Robeson was a film and stage actor as well as a lawyer, writer and orator, but by 1949 he had begun to focus his energies on becoming a political artist. He used his basso profundo voice to sing songs against racism and fascism. He was both an African American and a socialist who considered himself a friend of the Soviets.

Robeson had performed in Peekskill before without incident, but world events and his own politics converged to set the stage for hostility. That year, the Russians tested their first hydrogen bomb and Mao Zedong's Communist Party had taken over China. While attending the World Peace Conference in Paris, Robeson gave an interview to the Associated Press in which he said, "It is unthinkable that American Negroes will go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations...against a country (the Soviet Union) which in one generation has raised our people to the full dignity of mankind."

There had already been growing embers of suspicion and hatred toward American communism and proponents of the civil rights movement; Robeson's statement fanned the flames into a blaze.

Weeks before the concert, Louis Johnson, Truman's Secretary of Defense, made a speech to the Peekskill chapter of the American Legion emphasizing the threat communism now posed. "We will build our ramparts so strong that no aggressor will dare attack us," he was reported as saying in the city's newspaper, the Evening Star. Referring to the two world wars, the paper went on to editorialize: "Twice in our lifetime we have had peace within our hands and twice we lost it. If we make the same mistake the third time it may be our last chance. ... We can have peace... but only if we are prepared to fight for it. Now that we are fully awake, we are grimly determined that history shall not repeat itself."

When the concert was announced, the paper noted Robeson was "violently and loudly pro-Russian." It continued, "The time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out." Some readers apparently recognized an opportunity to test their patriotic, commie-hating mettle.

*

Howard Fast, the author of Spartacus, was to be the concert's master of ceremonies. He arrived early to make certain the sound and lights were ready, and though there had been some concern about trouble, up until about an hour before the concert, everything had gone as planned and was quiet. In his memoir, Being Red, he recounted the first glimmers of trouble:

"A boy running. I watched as he came in sight around the bend of the road, running frantically, and then we crowded around him and he told us there was trouble and would some of us come—because the trouble looked bad; he was frightened too.

"We started back with him. There were twenty-five or thirty of us, I suppose.... I thought that this would be no more than foul names and fouler insults. So we ran on up to the entrance, and as we appeared, they poured onto us from the road, at least a hundred of them with billies and brass knuckles and rocks and clenched fists, and American Legion caps, and suddenly my disbelief was washed away in a wild melee."

As their wives and children watched in terror, Fast and a few dozen men and boys fought a crowd of hundreds for several hours. Instead of stopping the vicious melee, police parked outside the concert grounds. When Seeger arrived with his mother to perform, an officer at the entrance to the park told him the show had been cancelled, and the musician returned home, not knowing that his friends and colleagues were fighting for their lives a few hundred yards away. News reporters watched the action impassively, taking photographs as people were stabbed and beaten. Agents from the Department of Justice took notes and watched as the rioters yelled, "We'll finish Hitler's job! Fuck you white niggers! Give us Robeson! We'll string that big nigger up!"

This first attack ended around 10 at night, when the rioters finally broke into the concert grounds and began stacking the wooden chairs into a pile. Fast described the scene: "A chair went on fire, and then another and another, and then a whole pile of the chairs. Then they discovered our table of books and pamphlets.... Standing there, arms linked, we watched the Nuremberg memory come alive again. The fire roared up and the defenders of the 'American way of life' seized piles of our books and danced around the blaze, flinging books into the fire as they danced."

In the glow of the bonfire, the Department of Justice agents finally abandoned their aloof neutrality and offered to help take the seriously injured (of which there were many) to the hospital.

*

In the aftermath, the local district attorney, George Fanelli, blamed the violence on the musicians and audience for showing up where they weren't wanted. When Seeger and others sent the governor a telegram urging him to investigate, he put Fanelli in charge as his neutral observer.

Robeson, who had been warned of the violence and hadn't been present for the first riot, would not be cowed and wanted a second chance to perform. The Civil Rights Congress held a huge rally in Harlem days after the attack, and Robeson declared, "If the police won't protect the audience, we will protect ourselves."

A second concert was announced for the next weekend on Labor Day at a location a half-mile from the scene of the previous week's violence. Local union leaders and the heads of the American Communist Party vowed to support Robeson and the other artists. Veterans' groups promised a counterdemonstration. The directors of People's Artists sought an injunction against the counterdemonstration, but the judge reviewing the request dismissed it, saying, "I don't know why you think the veterans are going to disobey the law."

The morning of the second concert, 2,500 union men (many of them also veterans) created a human wall around the concert ground protecting it. Robeson and the other performers were all provided volunteer body guards. Police from all over the state were called in to keep the peace. Between 15,000 and 20,000 audience members filled the open air arena, and the concert started at around three in the afternoon, just as the counterdemonstration was scheduled to end. Seeger and Guthrie warmed up the crowd, each with brief sets, and then Robeson performed. Just over an hour later, the concert ended peacefully and people began to head home. Despite the careful planning of security for the event, the artists had no exit strategy. Unfortunately, the rioters did.

According to Seeger's biography, How Can I Keep from Singing?, by David King Dunaway, Seeger first tried to take the most direct route to his home, but the police insisted everyone head down the narrow lane where the ambush awaited them.

"We hadn't gone a hundred yards from the gate when I saw glass on the road," Seeger said. "And in my innocence I said to my family, 'Hey, watch out, they may be throwing stones at us.' Hell, I had no idea how well organized it was. Around the next corner was a guy with a pile of stones, waist high.... As the cars came by, four or five feet away, wham! Around the next corner was another group with another pile of stones."

Police attacked drivers with their nightsticks, sometimes demanding the victims get out of their cars, and then proceeding to beat them to the ground. Seeger saw one officer standing with his arms crossed, and outraged, the musician stopped his car and demanded the policeman do something. The trooper took a step backwards and told him to move on. "I look around and the guy [in the car behind me] is getting it. Because I'm stopped, he's got to stop. And he's getting stone after stone right through his window. So I moved on."

A friend of Seeger's, Mario Cassetta, who was in the back seat, remembers, "We got to the end of the run and there was a clearing. We stopped. Some people were sitting. We asked, 'Do you know the nearest hospital?' And they all started laughing and cackling. Cackling. I remember one woman rocking back and forth slapping her knees, like she'd heard a good joke.... All the way into the Bronx—more than twenty miles—you could see the injured, a long bloody alley."

*

Though there were no deaths, the emergency rooms across Westchester County were filled, and many of the injuries were permanently debilitating. Years later, Seeger learned from the son of one of the police officers that the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan had worked with the police to orchestrate the attacks. No arrests were ever made, and the governor instead commended the police for their excellent work.

For about a month after the riots, the city where they had occurred was wallpapered with posters, signs and bumper stickers that read, "Wake Up, America, Peekskill Did!" And then, suddenly, they disappeared.

In a recent interview with Majora Carter for The Nation, Seeger explained what he thought had happened. "It seems that in Europe, they were horrified," he said. "They said those were the same signs that went up after Kristallnacht." This was another coordinated attack that had happened 11 years earlier in Germany when 91 Jews were killed and tens of thousands more were sent to concentration camps. The event became a Nazi rallying point, Seeger pointed out: "Hitler said, 'Wake up, Germany, Munich did: throw stones at all the Jewish shopkeepers.'"

With the world wondering whether America was turning fascist, apparently those responsible for the violence thought twice about what they'd done, and decided to try and forget what had happened.

Comments (5)
Post a Comment
I was at the second concert. Paul Robeson was marvelous. Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Betty Sanders charmed the crowd. On the way home local hoodlums and terrorists stoned my bus, breaking the windows. It was both a wonderful concert and a sad day in America. PJ
Posted by peanutjake on 9.2.09 at 15:44
My mother took me to one of the concerts. I was seven years old. We got stuck in a line of cars, and were there for hours. I will never forget the screaming and yelling and breaking glass and other sounds of violence. I remember a person running past our car shouting "Somebody's been stabbed!" A friend who came with us was sitting in the back, sobbing. The recordings that sometimes get played from this event rattle my bones to this day. I worry about today's conditions in this context.
Posted by Wendy Newton on 9.5.09 at 20:57
It's a good idea to recall this period. Values and justice were not the same as today and the question that comes right after is "how did all this evolve?" Thanks for this great piece of history
Posted by Argent Gagner on 11.5.09 at 1:41

This is a very moving story. I could not image that happening today, a lot has changed but I think out of control kids are still here.

Posted by Appletrees on 3.2.10 at 12:03

Pete Seeger WILL BE ON PBS AT 5;30 THIS AFTERNOON, Saturday, February 1st

Posted by steve zimmett on 2.1.14 at 13:17
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